Even in a city dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math, words and their meaning still matter.

It’s nearly impossible to have a successful career in any field, including STEM, in America without a firm grasp of the English language. That’s why the Bartholomew County Retired Teachers Association distributes dictionaries to third-graders across the county every year.

Since it began 12 years ago, the local chapter of the national Dictionary Project has given away 14,000 dictionaries in Bartholomew County.

“The goal is to improve literacy skills by encouraging children to expand their vocabulary, improve their reading skills and understand how to use a dictionary to find words and accurate spellings,” said Marsha VanNahmen, assistant director of the IUPUC center for teaching and learning.

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VanNahmen’s office coordinates the administrative side of the Dictionary Project.

As part of the project, retired teachers visit each of the third-grade classrooms in Bartholomew County to distribute the dictionaries, which come with a place for students to write their name and personalize the dictionary for themselves.

“(The students) are really excited to have their own dictionaries,” VanNahmen said.

The teachers also make a short presentation on the proper way to use a dictionary, including how to scan pages and use guide words to find what they are looking for.

And after a few minutes of practice, third-grade students at Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea campus had mastered the art of using their dictionaries.

“I’ll use mine to look up words,” said third-grader Kyleigh Wolf. “This is my first dictionary.”

“If I see a word I don’t know how to spell, I’ll look it up the spelling in the dictionary,” said Adair Herrera, another Fodrea third-grader.

Beyond basic reading and spelling skills, dictionaries have a wide range of uses, including building students’ vocabulary, VanNahmen said.

“I can remember as a child that when you open a dictionary and you’re searching for the right word, you invariably look at other words,” VanNahmen said. “It’s a default method to expand vocabulary, even if that isn’t the original intent.”

And in a city like Columbus, where people from all around the world come to work at one of the many manufacturing companies in town, catering to students’ individual language needs takes on even greater importance.

That’s why members of the Retired Teachers Association also distribute Spanish-to-English and Japanese-to-English dictionaries to students learning English as a second language.

But the project is not limited to Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. third graders. Students in the Flatrock-Hawcreek School Corp. in Hope, parochial schools and even home school programs receive their own personalized dictionaries to enhance their reading skills.

The dictionaries even go to students enrolled in classes at the McDowell Adult Education Center in Columbus to supplement the adult learning programs.

“We feel like we really saturate the county,” VanNahmen said.

The Dictionary Project reaches more than just the education world, though.

The Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County provides $2,000 yearly for the purchase of the dictionaries, a gift the foundation says is rewarding all year long.

“The kids like them, and they send us notes with fun little words on them, so that part is cool” said Kristin Munn, Heritage Fund community grant and outreach manager.

And even though dictionaries might seem outdated in the age of the Internet, Dictionary Project advocates insist there will always be a need for the book of words that students can take wherever they go.

“We do use them,” said Kim Kennedy, a Fodrea third-grade teacher. “They don’t just sit on the shelf.”

Dictionary uses

A dictionary can be used in a variety of ways for many purposes, including:

  • Looking up a word’s definition
  • Looking up the correct spelling of the word
  • Finding the English translation of another word, for English learners
  • Learning the parts of speech of a word
  • Learning the different tenses of a word
  • Pronunciation guide
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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.